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 Jack the Ripper anthology features stories of fact and fiction

By Kurt Anthony Krug
Legal News

Best-selling novelists Loren D. Estleman and Jeffery Deaver never turn down the opportunity to write a short story.

So when Edgar-winning editor Otto Penzler, a 1963 University of Michigan alumnus and owner of The Mysterious Bookshop in New York City, which lays claim to being the oldest and largest mystery-themed bookstore in the world, recruited them to contribute to his latest anthology “The Big Book of Jack the Ripper” (Penguin Random House $25), he didn’t need to twist their arms.

“Otto and I have known each other for years. I have frequently contributed short stories to his anthologies, and he asked me if I would contribute one to his Jack the Ripper project, which would be a combination of essays and fiction. I have written some period pieces before – involving Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes – and enjoyed that very much, so I jumped at the chance,” said Deaver, an attorney-turned-novelist best known for his mystery novels featuring quadriplegic detective Lincoln Rhyme.

Jack the Ripper is the alias of the serial killer who terrorized London’s Whitechapel district in 1888. He gained notoriety by butchering five prostitutes and taunting the police by sending them letters, one postmarked “From Hell.” However, after murdering his fifth victim, the killings abruptly stopped and Jack was never caught. Numerous conspiracy theories about his true identity persist to this day, inspiring hundreds of books and documentaries, to say nothing of incalculable amounts of fiction.

Penzler compiled fiction, new and old, as well as theories regarding Jack’s true identity, Jack’s letters to the police, witness statements at the scenes of the murders, newspaper accounts about Jack’s reign of terror, and essays from playwright George Bernard Shaw, author/parapsychologist Peter Underwood, and “I, Ripper” author Stephen Hunter.

“I’d never used non-fiction in any of my previous anthologies. Going through the countless books and magazine articles to find the most complete yet concise description of all the elements was complicated,” explained Penzler. “There have been scores of full-length books on the subject, but I had to find a manageable length to get the entire story out – including the background of the locale, the contemporary newspaper accounts, the speculation about his identity, etc.”

This anthology reprints classic short-fiction by “Psycho” author Robert Bloch and detective fiction pioneer Ellery Queen (the pseudonym of cousins Frederic Dannay and James Yaffe) in addition to six original works of short fiction by Deaver, Estleman, Edgar nominee Lyndsay Faye, Edgar-winning author Anne Perry, among others.

“All the contributions are unique and bring their creator’s vision and voice to the project. If there’s anything particularly unusual about my story, it’s how my fictional Jack the Ripper impacted European – indeed global – geopolitics up to the World War I era. I must say it was rather humbling to be included in a collection that included George Bernard Shaw and Ellery Queen,” said Deaver.

Added Estleman, of Whitmore Lake: “By any standard, it’s flattering company to be in. I grew up on Ellery Queen, and respect Deaver and Bloch tremendously, along with the other well-known writers in the book. I look forward to getting to know the work of those authors I’m unfamiliar with.”

Deaver spent a month researching his story “A Matter of Blood,” centering around Britain’s royal family – specifically Queen Victoria’s granddaughter Alix of Hesse, later known as Alexandra Feodorovna, wife of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia.

“I needed to make sure that the story pleased – or at least did not irritate – three groups of readers: a general audience who weren’t familiar with the period but who wanted a good, credible yarn; those who were familiar with the history of Victorian England either through academia or reading other fiction of the era; and, finally, the legion of Jack the Ripper ‘fans.’ Even though my story was pure fiction it still had to conform to the facts as we know them,” explained Deaver. “For me, the most important goal of short stories is to shock readers by the unexpected. I think I played fair – planting seeds for the big revelation at the end, then pulling the rug out from under my audience.” 

Penzler praised Deaver’s contribution, declaring the author to be one of America’s best short story writers today.

“I love his story so much that I will nominate it for inclusion in ‘The Best American Mystery Stories 2017,’” said Penzler.

Estleman’s story “G.I. Jack” occurs in Detroit circa World War II, straying from the usual 19th century Victorian London setting. In it, he brings back his Racket Squad characters, hardboiled Detroit cops collectively known as the Four Horsemen.

“I think that changing the time period from Victorian London to wartime Detroit would distance it from most of the book,” said the Shamus-winning Estleman, best known for his novels featuring Detroit-based private eye Amos Walker.

Estleman has several shelves in his personal library devoted to Jack the Ripper. He wasn’t about to pass up the chance to dust them off and reference them when writing his story.

“I was in the mood to write a new Four Horsemen story; the concept was having the Racket Squad address a Ripper-related murder against the backdrop of World War II got the ideas popping,” he explained. “Since I’ve spent many years reading about the Ripper case… I only had to crack a few books to get the dates and names right; one of the Horsemen was following up on the case for the sergeant’s exam, so the references were important.”

Estleman even has a working theory about Jack’s true identity.

“I’m partial to the theory of my late close friend Dale Walker that Boston Corbett – the man credited with killing John Wilkes Booth – was Jack. Corbett’s English birth, the grotesque circumstances of his bizarre life, and his disappearance shortly before the Ripper killings began make him as good a candidate as any,” explained Estleman. “But if Jack ever is positively identified, I can’t imagine what purpose it could possibly serve, except to deprive history of one of its great riddles.”

Penzler and Deaver have no idea who Jack really was. However, Deaver summed up why Jack’s crimes have taken on an almost-mythical nature and are still hotly debated 128 years later in one word: Mystery.
“Viewed objectively the crimes were, while horrific, mundane. Prostitutes are a common victim for serial killers. The body count was low. And only the absence of modern security systems and high-tech forensics prevented the killer’s detection. But we’re captivated because the question of who has never been answered. If Jack had been caught or his identity revealed definitively, we wouldn’t be having this discussion right now,” said Deaver.

In fact, Deaver encourages readers to become Ripper detectives – commonly called “Ripperologists” – themselves. He stated the best starting point is the 1894 memo written by Melville Macnaghten, the asst. commissioner of the London Metropolitan Police. In it, Macnaghten narrowed down Jack’s true identity to three possible suspects: Montague John Druitt, Aaron Kosminski, and Michael Ostrog.

“Of course, the memo itself is subject to a number of questions and conspiracy theories… But, then, this is exactly what makes the Ripper story so deviously appealing,” said Deaver.

Penzler gave his perspective on Jack’s staying power.

“I think it’s a combination of things, including that the crimes were exceptionally heinous and the numerous newspapers in London were battling for circulation so (they ran) the most sensational headlines and stories possible. Photography in newspapers was still relatively new and they ran some shocking photos,” explained Penzler. “Also, the very name, Jack the Ripper, was incredibly evocative. ‘Jack the Killer’ would not have resonated in the same way. The fact that he wasn’t caught kept the story without a conclusion, so people have enjoyed speculating ever since.”

Estleman was in agreement with Penzler.

“Mainly because the case was never solved,” said Estleman. “His audacity in writing bragging letters to the press – if the letters were genuine; there’s controversy about that – the sheer hideous bravado of committing two of his slayings moments apart when all the world was on his heels, his status as one of the first serial killers, and finally the saucy/bloodthirsty combination of the name Jack the Ripper have guaranteed him his place among the enduring mysteries of the past alongside the ghost ship The Flying Dutchman, the disappearance of  (New York State Supreme Court Justice Joseph Force) Crater, the builders of Stonehenge, and where (Detroit labor leader) Jimmy Hoffa is buried.”

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